(WOMENSENEWS)–The U.S. attorney who coordinated the investigation into the assassination of abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian in upstate New York–culminating in three arrests–has been dismissed in the middle of her term by the avowedly anti-choice Bush administration.
For the past two and a half years, since the obstetrician was shot by a sniper through his kitchen window, U.S. Attorney Denise E. O’Donnell in Buffalo has been on the case, literally day and night, coordinating agencies in one of the most intensive investigations in U.S. history.
A seasoned prosecutor in the Western District of New York, she was pivotal in the massive and complex international law enforcement effort that led to the identification, indictment and arrest of alleged killer James Charles Kopp, one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted. Known as “Atomic Dog” in anti-abortion circles, he was associated with numerous anti-abortion protests and also was wanted in connection with the wounding of three Canadian abortion providers.
Kopp was captured in France at the end of March. Authorities in New York City also arrested two people who allegedly helped him remain a fugitive.
On May 4, extradition papers prepared by O’Donnell’s office were filed in France, seeking the return of Kopp to New York to stand trial.
But O’Donnell won’t be around for further legal proceedings.
Despite a plea from New York’s senior senator, Charles E. Schumer, to let her complete her term, President Bush on March 15 asked O’Donnell to resign and vacate her office around May 31, the middle of her four-year term.
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No explanation was given for dismissing O’Donnell.
U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president, but their terms do not end with an election. Neither Bush nor U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose office oversees the activities of U.S. attorneys, has met with or spoken to O’Donnell.
Neither the Justice Department nor the White House responded to inquiries about how many U.S. attorneys nationwide are being replaced by the new administration, although three out of four in New York State were asked to resign.
Although both Bush and Ashcroft are strongly anti-choice, Ashcroft has pledged to pursue the Kopp prosecution.
After Kopp was arrested, O’Donnell called the search one of the “most painstaking, intensive investigations on an international level that has ever been undertaken in this country.”
“I was committed to make sure that the case was pursued with all of the resources available to us to bring a just conclusion,” she added in an interview.
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Glenn E. Murray, attorney for Lynne Slepian, widow of the murdered doctor, expressed their displeasure over the decision to fire O’Donnell.
“To replace her in midstream, after the kind of professionalism she has shown, reeks of political high-handedness,” Murray said. “Denise O’Donnell did a super job, not only in supervising the investigation, but in making Lynne Slepian feel involved,” he added. “After such professional dedication, Lynne is upset that she would be replaced.” Before Kopp’s arrest, O’Donnell had informed Mrs. Slepian that authorities were closing in, he said.
In his letter to the president, Sen. Schumer noted that in previous election cycles both Democrats and Republicans, including Presidents Reagan and Clinton, had used bipartisan goodwill to retain U.S. attorneys and let them complete their terms.
“Allowing U.S. Attorneys to serve out their terms has the great benefit of reducing the role politics plays in the administration of justice,” Schumer wrote.
O’Donnell was the first woman in the post of U.S. attorney in the 40-lawyer, 17-county Western District. She was confirmed by the Senate only two days before Slepian was assassinated on Oct. 23, 1998. She had moved up through the ranks after joining the office in the Reagan administration in 1985. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, known as FACE, was signed into law by Clinton in 1994, making the doctor’s murder one of the biggest cases to land in her jurisdiction.
“For what we went through, thank God it was under the prior administration,” said Marilyn Buckham, administrator of Buffalo GYN Womanservices, the clinic where Dr. Slepian performed abortions.
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“To Denise O’Donnell, it was much more than a job. She even called us at home, knowing the mess we were in and how frightened we were,” said Buckham.
The Slepian murder presented multiple complications, including three associated shootings of abortion providers in Canada and the involvement of individuals who allegedly were aiding the perpetrator.
“Kopp was not just on the Ten Most Wanted List, but he was among the ten most difficult to capture,” said Murray.
The investigation required coordinating several dozen law enforcement agencies, including those in Canada, Great Britain, France and across the United States. “The Kopp case is a testament to the ability of everyone to put aside personal concerns and issues and to work as a team,” O’Donnell said. “And a lot was accomplished.”
While quick to credit others, O’Donnell underscored the significant role a U.S. attorney could play in her testimony before the Commission on the Advancement of Federal Law Enforcement in December 1998, a select hearing presided over by former FBI chief William Webster. Successful interagency investigation, she said, depended on “the emphasis and cooperation from the top down.”
New Book Documents Violent, Anti-Abortion Consortium
Paul Moskal, chief division counsel for the FBI in Buffalo, declined to comment on the workings of the Kopp task force, but he had high praise for O’Donnell.
One significant aspect of the Buffalo investigation was the pursuit of alleged confederates.
Loretta Claire Marra and Dennis John Malvasi of Brooklyn, N.Y., are also in custody, charged by O’Donnell’s office with aiding Kopp in maintaining his fugitive status. These arrests expose “the far-reaching, organized network of extremists,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
A violent anti-abortion consortium is documented in a recently published book, “Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism,” by Patricia Baird-Windle and Eleanor J. Bader. An analysis of anti-abortion violence across the nation revealed that “the key players were the same folks,” said Bader.
She found a changed no-nonsense atmosphere in Buffalo after the Slepian investigation began, compared to 1992 when aggressive anti-abortion demonstrators swarmed through the city. “Law enforcement wasn’t playing games,” Bader said.
The only New York appointee asked to stay on is U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White of the Southern District, whose term had expired. The government cited ongoing investigations by her office into pardons issued by President Clinton and the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa.
Continuing legal proceedings in the cases of Kopp, Marra and Malvasi will be handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Mehltretter, said O’Donnell, who will join the law firm of Hodgson Russ in Buffalo. No replacement or interim U.S. attorney has been named.
Cynthia L. Cooper is a freelance journalist and lawyer who frequently writes about reproductive rights.
For further information, visit:
ProChoice Network of Western New York on Dr. Barnett Slepian:
“Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism” by Patricia Baird-Windle and Eleanor J. Bader:
The Feminist Majority Foundation on clinic violence:
National Abortion Federation on clinic violence: